Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Film Review: Clash By Night

"Clash By Night" *** (out of ****)

Fritz Lang's "Clash By Night" (1952) opens with a shot of a violent sea storm. We see waves clashing against the shore repeatedly. The shots serves two purposes. One, the film takes place in a fishing community and secondly, it foreshadows the violent nature of the characters and their eventual "clash" with each other.

We see this shot again, later in the picture, only this time, one of the characters, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) is watching the storm from her window. At that moment, the storm is symbolic of the rage inside her, her own emotional storm if you will.

Mae Doyle returns home to her brother Joe (Keith Andes) after a ten year absence. Mae Doyle had big plans in life. Plans which the small fishing community would be unable to make come true. She wanted to marry money and live the easy life. She was in fact the mistress of a New York politician. After he died she was left with nothing. With no place to go, she heads back home.

The only fishermen we meet in the film is Jerry D'Amato (Paul Douglas). He lives with his aging father, (Silvio Minciotti) and his alcoholic, loafer Uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naisn). Mae's brother Joe works for Jerry.

After a two week period we learn Mae mostly keeps to herself, she doesn't even leave the house. The nightlife in this town is much different than the one in New York. At Joe's insistence, Jerry asks Mae out. She accepts. Dinner and a movie.

But why does Mae accept? We suspect Jerry isn't really Mae's type. Jerry is a decent guy. A loyal, reliable person. He has a job, looks after his father, allows his uncle to take advantage of him. Mae, we suspect, is looking for more adventure. She's a tough cookie. The type of person that doesn't let out her feelings. She doesn't like to stay in one place too long.

Mae and Jerry see a lot of each other. Then, one day, Jerry introduces Mae to his friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a projectionist at the local movie theatre. Earl is similar to Mae. At first Mae doesn't hide her dislike for Earl. Could it be because she realizes they are alike? She doesn't want to fall back into her old habits?

I really don't feel I have to write too much more as most readers can probably guess where all of this is going to go. Mae and Jerry end up getting married, they have a child. Mae feels Jerry can offer her some comfort and a place to settle down. Notice love never enters the picture. But soon after the birth of their child Mae starts to get the itch. She can't stay married to Jerry. She has to move on. She feels confined.

"Clash By Night" felt like a Tennessee Williams play to me. It was based on a stage play by Clifford Odets who wrote such works as "Humoresque" (1946), "The Sweet Smell of Success" (1957) and "The Country Girl" (1954). It was adapted by Alfred Hayes who worked with Fritz Lang on another picture, "Human Desire" (1954). He also wrote the drug addiction film "A Hatful of Rain" (1957) and was nominated twice for an Oscar; "Paisan" (though made in 1946, it wasn't released in America until 1950) and "Teresa" (1951).

One of the problems I have with "Clash By Night", and it might be the only problem I have with it, is it takes forever to reach its predictable conflict. The viewer knows where this is all headed but the movie delays the action in the name of creating atmosphere and establishing the character's personality. That is all very important no question, but, I believe it could have done all of these things and still move events along.

One of the things which makes "Clash By Night" interesting however is the portrayal of women in the film. The two main female characters are Mae and Peggy (a young Marilyn Monroe), she is engaged to Joe. Both women are attracted to wild men. Dominate men who will control them. Peggy says she doesn't want to be bossed around, yet, she still remains with Joe and accepts his marriage proposal, after she says they had a major fight and he broke down the door to ask for her hand.

It suggest women like the "bad boy" type but don't want any of the drama associated with them. Which I suppose is true in real life as well. But then there is the issue of Mae and her child. Mae doesn't want to leave her baby behind. This would suggest a baby changes everything. Responsibility changes a person. Compare and contrast Jerry and Earl in the course of the film and what each man represents. Compare and contrast Mae at the beginning of the film and who she becomes at the end.

Marilyn Monroe fans should know she is not the star of this picture and the usual glam we associate with her is not on display here. Her looks are downplayed. She was still a young actresses at this point who may have been best known for her brief role in films such as "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) and "All About Eve" (1950). The following year would prove much more successful for Monroe. She would appear in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953) and "How To Marry A Millionaire" (1953) and still ahead would be "The Seven Year Itch" (1955).

Barbara Stanwyck is the playing the bad girl we saw her play in "Double Indemnity" (1944) and "Baby Face" (1931) and for laughs in "The Lady Eve" (1941). She creates a character which at times is not sympathetic at all. Her hard shell makes it difficult for people to get to know her. She doesn't treat her husband with the kindness you would expect a couple in love to.

As I said, compare and contrast Jerry and Earl. I suppose on some level there is a comment about what makes a man. Jerry has to prove himself as more than a nice man who would never hurt anyone. That simply is not attractive to Mae and makes him appear less masculine. Earl is a man. But Earl isn't stable. Does it matter?

Director Fritz Lang was good at making semi film noir stories with strong psychological undertones. I prefer "The Woman in the Window" (1944) and "Scarlet Street" (1945) which are also about masculinity. Both star Edward G. Robinson and I have reviewed both. At this period in Lang's career many would argue his work suffered in comparison to his earlier films. Lang had hit hard times and wasn't as critically respected as he was back in the days of "M" (1931), "Metropolis" (1927) and his first American film "Fury" (1936).

For whatever reason, once in America Lang didn't command the respect he deserved. He made films on a cheaper budget and lack the grand scope of his earlier films. He was also, unfairly in my opinion, snubbed by the Academy Awards. Lang never received as Oscar nomination for his directing. He hasn't even been given an honorary Oscar as the Academy does often when it realizes many times it has wrongfully neglected to celebrate a great artist.

"Clash By Night" is not one of Lang's great films. I admit that. It isn't a bad film however. There are interesting social themes floating around throughout the picture. And the acting for the most part is very good. Lang was something of a perfectionist, so he was going to demand a lot from his actors (though actors often claimed they hated working for him).

This doesn't make for a good introduction into Lang's work. For that I'd suggest "Metropolis", "M" or "Fury". "Clash By Night" is good for those familiar with his work already.